Reviving Global Disarmament

In this article, the author seeks to revive the debate around the issue of global disarmament by calling civil society to engage with the issue critically and constructively. Disarmament, he argues, ought to deal simultaneously with conventional weapons and armed forces, so called inhuman weaponry, and WMD, and be considered within the broader context of human rights, development, and climate change. The author concludes that more action-oriented debate is necessary.


By David J. Franco, 18 Nov, 2011

Under the provisions of the UN Charter the Security Council is responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security while the General Assembly may, inter alia, make recommendations in matters governing disarmament and the regulation of armaments. To date the General Assembly has issued numerous resolutions calling for disarmament but despite some progress a lot remains to be done. In extreme synthesis, when looking at disarmament matters we are referring to three interrelated areas: conventional and armed forces, humanitarian, and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Contemporary examples relating to each of these areas include, respectively, the 1990 European Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces, the 1997 Convention on landmines, and the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions of 1972 and 1993.

Surely the aforementioned achievements (and many others) constitute positive steps but many questions remain unresolved. For example, why keep the three disarmament fronts separate? Or why are past regional agreements not extended to other regions? In a Study on Conventional Disarmament[1] prepared in the early eighties experts in the field stated that ‘conventional disarmament should be pursued in conjunction with nuclear disarmament’. Further, they underlined that conventional disarmament ‘should not jeopardize the security of any State and it should be aimed at achieving general and complete disarmament’. The same conclusion must be reached when considering nuclear disarmament. The two, conventional and WMD, are mutually reinforcing and interlinked. Humanitarian disarmament is not different in that respect. Only a month ago Pakistan delivered a Statement to the UN First Committee on Disarmament reinforcing these points[2] -of special significance is the following paragraph taken from the Final Document of the 1978 First Special Session of the General Assembly on Disarmament:

“Together with negotiations on nuclear disarmament measures, negotiations should be carried out on the balanced reduction of forces and of conventional armaments, based on the principle of undiminished security of the parties with a view to promoting or enhancing stability at a lower military level, taking into account the need of all states to protect their security”.

But why is all the rhetoric on disarmament not accompanied by real, holistic proposals? Is it because of the daunting difficulties that such a project entails? Because of a lack of vision? Or is it simply the result of the absence of political will on the part of the P-5? It is often argued that nuclear disarmament should be given priority based on the tremendous destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons but in a time where these are now spread in at least nine different countries total nuclear disarmament would ultimately leave conventional strong states in an even greater position of power. After all, reducing power asymmetries is one of the reasons why countries seek to develop nuclear capabilities (although it is not the only reason[3]). Unfortunately, weapons and war remain for many states an instrument of power (not for all states though as some twenty one countries in the world do not have an army). Great powers still believe they can posit themselves over and above the law. Double standard policies have caused much harm. In cases such as the NPT regime, nuclear powers act as if they were part of an oligopoly similar to that of powerful companies trading with precious commodities.

An aspect we need to bear in mind when it comes to disarmament is the notion of issue-linkage. Disarmament needs to be approached in conjunction with human rights, development, and climate change. In mid September I attended the Third SGI-UK Peace Proposal Symposium[4] where I listened to a presentation by Dr Michele Lamb[5] who drew the attention to the lack of connection between the human rights movement and the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The human rights movement has managed to cross boundaries and communicate and unite with disarmament initiatives aimed at light weaponry and other conventional weapons (for example, landmines and cluster munitions –the so called humanitarian disarmament). But why is it failing to communicate with the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Are WMDs less of a humanitarian concern than conventional weapons or weapons inflicting unnecessary suffering to combatants and non-combatants alike? Is it not our right as citizens to be informed on how our governments and armies spend our money in WMDs?[6]

One possible explanation is the sense of helplessness and anxiety that common and ordinary people feel when confronted with the rather incomprehensible nature of nuclear weapons and WMDs more generally (I have pointed elsewhere to denial as another possible explanation[7]). Furthermore, the level of state secrecy with which these weapons are surrounded does not help increase either the level of awareness or the willingness to engage in a fruitful debate on the usefulness (rather the uselessness) of these weapons (someone has elsewhere described these weapons as “invisible”[8]). We have seen pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki yet we are not capable of understanding what nuclear weapons are. Nor are we capable of accepting that we, the West, used them in the past and that we risk using them again in the future –instead, we are always pointing the finger to others.

Moreover, military budgets have a direct impact on development and human security. At a lecture at the London Imperial War Museum, Sir Richard Jolly[9] opened his talk with the following statement: “Disarmament is the kindest cut of all for development”. He then added that a shift of spending away from the military brings immense benefits including a rise in education and employment, a decrease of inflation, and a notable increase in human security and development. Further, as a lady in the audience rightly noted we cannot look at disarmament and climate change from separate orbits. With environmental change, the world will see a rise in conflict as states and non-state actors will likely increase their struggle over natural resources and energy and food security. The more weapons are spread around the globe the more likely we are to resort to these to resolve our differences (thus failing to follow the UN Charter provisions on the use of pacific settlement of disputes).

Civil society needs to engage with all these issues simultaneously. After a decade of huge military spending, reviving global disarmament is much needed. Of course, that does not mean that other less universalizing and all-encompassing initiatives cannot take place in the meantime. Take for example the case of the Middle East. Does a global, holistic approach to disarmament mean that no interim steps should be taken there? Or should WMD disarmament in the region be subjected to parallel conventional disarmament and/ or agreement on the adoption of a regional security framework? Should, on the contrary, WMD disarmament be detached from the politics of the region? These are all questions that were raised and addressed at the 6th Annual Conference on a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone held at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.

The authors of the aforementioned Study on Conventional Disarmament also noted that ‘in order to facilitate the process of disarmament it is necessary to take measures and pursue policies (…) including commitments to confidence-building measures’. Confidence security building measures are indeed necessary at all stages and levels of disarmament as they can help further develop a move from a culture of violence to a culture of peace. But then, what if nuclear disarmament could be achieved regionally without simultaneous conventional disarmament? Would that be a positive step for the region or should weaker conventional states with nuclear capabilities resist it because it would lead to further asymmetries of power and a breakdown of regional balance of power? Would the removal of WMDs from the Middle East not amount to a confidence building measure in itself?

According to some, disarmament needs no debate for it is neither a political nor an ideological matter. Let me disagree. When debate fails, silence reigns and all sorts of abuses take place. Debate is necessary, provided it is not sterile, provided it raises the relevant questions, and provided it is followed by action. Reviving global disarmament is mostly needed, the world can only benefit from it. Producing more weapons does not amount to more security. Neither does the current pervasive talk of non-proliferation and counter-proliferation.


[2] Available online at http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/1com/1com11/statements/18Oct_Pakistan.pdf. In the same document, Pakistan further stresses the importance of linking conventional and nuclear disarmament with humanitarian disarmament and the implementation of confidence building measures.

[3] See for example ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb’, International Security, 21:3, pp 54-86

[5] Dr Michele Lamb is principal Lecturer in Human Rights and Sociology at Roehampton University

[6] Note that the terms human rights and humanitarian are used here interchangeably and free of academic and theoretical constraints

[7] See ‘Farewell to nuclear weapons or the failure of civilisation’

[8] Watch a video available at www.hairtriggeralert.com

[9] Sir Richard Jolly is Honorary Professor and Research Associate of the Institute for Development Studies, University of Sussex, and former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. He has also worked with UNICEF and UNDP

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